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Gladys Knight, Amy Grant and U2 are among Kennedy Center honorees: NPR

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Gladys Knight arrives to attend the Kennedy Center Honorees Reception at the White House in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP


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Gladys Knight, Amy Grant and U2 are among Kennedy Center honorees: NPR

Gladys Knight arrives to attend the Kennedy Center Honorees Reception at the White House in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

WASHINGTON — A heartfelt Patti LaBelle congratulated her lifelong friend Gladys Knight. Sean Penn called U2 “four scrappy Dublin punks”. Ballet dancers performed for conductor and composer Tania León. Matt Damon playfully teased his friend George Clooney — a lot — while Sheryl Crow delivered a heartfelt rendition of “Baby Baby” to Amy Grant during Sunday’s Kennedy Center Honors.

Knight, Clooney, Grant, León and U2 have all been celebrated at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which annually honors a select group of people for their artistic influences on American culture. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and their respective wives attended, as did members of the presidential cabinet and Congress.

One member of the public from the political world — Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — caught the eye. He is recovering from a brutal attack at the Pelosis home in San Francisco in October. The couple received a standing ovation from the crowd.

Normally, artists like U2 or Knight would headline such a show, but at the Kennedy Center event, honorees sit on the balcony and watch their peers praise them and perform their works.

On the red carpet, Clooney, with his wife, Amal, by his side, joked that after seeing friends like Don Cheadle and Julia Roberts in attendance, he feared his tribute was no longer a “roast”. And it was kind of like that, even though his friends and family showed obvious respect.

Roberts set the tone by stepping out on stage in a dress adorned with photos of Clooney. After an introduction that alternated between funny and heartfelt, she turned to a set designed to look like a smoky bar — the type Clooney might enjoy. The actor’s father, Nick Clooney, regaled the crowd with stories of a young George, including the time the 7-year-old – heartbroken by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 – gave his dad all his toy guns.

Damon took the funny route, joking about how Clooney once stole President Bill Clinton’s stationery and wrote notes to other actors on it. Cheadle highlighted Clooney’s philanthropic work. But it was probably Clooney’s father who got the most praise, telling the crowd and his son, sitting on the balcony between U2’s León and Bono, “George’s best and most important work is always in front of him.

Standing on a stage lit by a huge sign that read “Gladys,” LaBelle called Knight her “everything,” saying they had been friends for six decades and had seen each other through laughter and tears. “We do everything together,” LaBelle said. “I am honored to honor you tonight.”

Actor and hip-hop star LL Cool J said that whenever Knight sings, she connects with people. “I once heard Gladys sing the ABCs and thought I was in church,” he said.

Gladys Knight, Amy Grant and U2 are among Kennedy Center honorees: NPR

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden stand with the 2022 Kennedy Center Honorees during the 45th Kennedy Center Honors at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP


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Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Gladys Knight, Amy Grant and U2 are among Kennedy Center honorees: NPR

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden stand with the 2022 Kennedy Center Honorees during the 45th Kennedy Center Honors at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Knight – usually with his backing vocalists, The Pips – recorded dozens of albums with classic hits such as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Midnight Train to Georgia”. The challenge of singing this classic in front of the woman who made it famous fell on country music superstar Garth Brooks, who is himself a Kennedy Center honoree. He cited Knight’s “roots in country music” before branching out into classical.

Each artist was introduced by a video compilation showing snippets of their lives. At Grant’s, her children spoke of their mother’s influence on them. Crow has spoken of Grant’s influence on her as a young student.

“Amy also taught me that it’s possible to be funny, irreverent and Christian all at the same time,” Crow said.

Five ballet dancers took the stage to honor composer and conductor Tania León, who left Cuba as a refugee in 1967; her passport was stamped “Cancelado” when she left the country. The performers were from the Dance Theater in Harlem, which León helped found when she eventually made it to New York. She also instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series and in 2021 received the Pulitzer Prize for her work “Stride”, inspired by women’s rights champion Susan B. Anthony.

“How can I convey the extent of your musical genius? asked actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith. Jazz pianist Jason Moran, singer Alicia Hall Moran and cellist Sterling Elliott performed one of León’s creations, “Oh Yemanja”.

The last winner of the evening was U2. In a video recorded on Saturday, U2 guitarist The Edge noted that a group of four ‘Irish lads’ were being honored for their contribution to American culture and said there is a connection between the group and America that can’t really be explained.

Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder sang “Elevation” and U2’s “One”. Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen brought his alter ego Borat to the stage as part of the U2 tribute, pretending to confuse Biden with former President Donald Trump. Singers Brandi Carlile, Hozier and Jamala – from the United States, Ireland and Ukraine, respectively – closed the show with an emotional version of “Walk On”.

Bono of U2 is also known for his philanthropic work to eradicate poverty and raise awareness about AIDS. Jamala, whose home country Ukraine was embroiled in nearly a year of bloody war after the Russian invasion, touched on this history of social activism as he introduced the final song of the night.

“It’s only fitting that on the night meant to honor them, they once again used their platform to spread a message of peace. Honestly, to be here in this bright and warm room tonight is truly something extraordinary for me, when there is so much darkness in my home country of Ukraine,” she said.

The honorees came to the theater after a reception at the White House where Biden congratulated them in front of a star-studded crowd in the East Room as an “outstanding group of entertainers.”

“Thank you for showing us the power of the arts and ‘We the People,'” Biden said.

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